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The Red Squirrels at Coole
[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Frances Leviston’s “Trimmings” appears in the October 2014 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]
I write this guest piece shortly after learning that the poem of mine accepted by Poetry will appear, not in a regular issue, but in a special issue showcasing contemporary UK poets. Why do I feel some disappointment at this news? The poem will still be in the magazine; it will still find a readership; but the prospect of escaping the usual British context to be read alongside an international range of work was something I found immensely appealing. Other forms of orientation have more valency than nationalism for me. I’ve never felt any deep attachment to a country, a town, a landscape; never written in that grounded, territorial sort of way. The books most important to me over the last few years have been by Elizabeth Bishop, George Seferis, and Ange Mlinko, poets whose relationships with British poetic traditions are helpfully indirect. And perhaps I should mention here Theocritos’s words to young Evmenis in C.P. Cavafy’s poem of 1899 “The First Step,” something I love reading to students because I like to hear it myself. Theocritos advises Evmenis not to despair about his small achievements in poetry thus far, because, “To stand on this step / you must be in your own right / a member of the city of ideas. / And it is a hard, unusual thing / to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.”
I’ve always wanted to belong to the city of ideas, and it seems to me that membership of such a city is often incompatible with the other kinds of membership on offer along the way. Choices, or compromises, have to be made, and I find myself more and more inclined to say no to some invitations as a way of saying yes to to something closer to that ideal. I found it liberating to refuse both the Poet Laureate’s invitation to write a poem for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012, and the Poetry Book Society’s attempt to include me in its Next Generation promotion of emerging poets this year. It’s not that I don’t want to be read, or that I object on principal to the business of actively seeking a readership. The question is one of context—do I feel happy in those groupings, in those lights? Do I want to be marketed as “young” and “new” and “sanctioned by”? Am I prepared to curtsey to the Queen, figuratively or otherwise? Do these things, these appointments, sit well with the actual poems I’m writing?
Yeats, as ever, is instructive. Responsibilities and Other Poems (1916) contains the brief lyric “An Appointment,” in which the poet, brimful of political disillusionment, watches a squirrel in the woods at Coole:
Being out of heart with government
I took a broken root to fling
Where the proud, wayward squirrel went,
Taking delight that he could spring;
And he, with that low whinnying sound
That is like laughter, sprang again
And so to the other tree at a bound.
Nor the tame will, nor timid brain,
Bred that fierce tooth and cleanly limb
And threw him up to laugh on the bough;
No government appointed him.
An appointment is a job; it is an assignation; it can also denote, in a sense now obsolete but residually present, a concession to a conquering enemy. The poem was kindled by Yeats’s anger at the passing-over of his friend Hugh Lane, Lady Gregory’s nephew, by the Dublin Museum Curatorship appointments committee in favour of the “timid, obedient official” Count George Noble Plunkett. In the writing, this anger gives rise to a larger vision: the poem embodies not peevish personal frustration, but a complicated understanding that Lane was too clever, too good, too alive to win the committee’s sanction, which is not exactly cause for regret; and that officialdom can confer nothing that is equal to the mocking and fierce independence of the squirrel.
“An Appointment” was first published in 1909, which means that the squirrel Yeats saw at Coole would have been red. The hardier, more aggressive American grey squirrel, which starves red squirrels out, was not introduced to Ireland until 1911, as a gift from the Duke of Buckingham to the wedding party for Lord Granier’s daughter at Castle Forbes in Co. Longford. The original few pairs of grey squirrels were released from a wicker hamper on to the lawns as an aesthetic diversion, and then allowed to disappear into the grounds.
It seems fitting that red squirrel populations still exist in the United Kingdom wherever there survives some scepticism about that very union, and some desire for a greater degree of self-determination. I live in Durham, in north-east England; and although there are no red squirrels in the city, it’s possible to see them in the countryside—in Slaley Forest, for example—and further north, into Northumberland (Morpeth, Ashington, Framlington), which then turns to the Scottish Borders, and finally to Scotland itself: all places openly and even constitutionally doubtful of London’s officialdom and authority.
Independence has of course been on everyone’s minds. Last week, Scotland voted No to independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum. For now, they will remain in the alliance, under what is effectively a Conservative government for which only 16.7% of the Scottish electorate voted. The No campaign ran primarily on the fear of an independent Scotland not being economically viable, and I suspect it’s on these grounds that it succeeded. No matter how positive people felt about independence, the danger of finding themselves in a situation even worse than that which prompted the referendum in the first place carried the day.
I was born in Edinburgh to an English family who moved back to England when I was nine years old, which gives me a sort of nominal and imaginative investment in the referendum situation, but no responsibility for voting, and no direct stake in the outcome. I wanted Scotland to vote Yes; I wanted them to at least symbolically deliver themselves from the poor-shaming depredations of the UK in 2014. I wanted independence to be possible, as it seemed possible to Adrienne Rich when she refused the 1997 National Medal for the Arts because of “radical disparities of wealth and power in America,” or to the academic Marina Warner when she publicly resigned from her post this summer at the University of Essex, once a sparkplug institution, in protest at the “ecstasy of obedience” that management demands of its staff.
Ecstasy of obedience. Accepting an appointment from power always brings your sense of self into closer alignment with power’s expectations of you. It endangers whatever it is that you are being rewarded for—your originality; your independence—just as the gift of grey squirrels endangered the native reds. Poets, especially younger poets, often face such demands of obligation and temptations of endorsement. What I take from Yeats’s poem is the opposite of this: the relief of realising that one need not be appointed to one’s own life: that no sanctioning government, no official position, is required for the business of taking oneself seriously, in whatever sense seems right; and that indiscriminate deference, compliance, and obedience neither command nor signal respect. Respect is an altogether more fugitive response: it is private, not performative. Prioritising such respect seems far more likely to lead a contented, dignified life—and, for that matter, to poetry.